We’re three years into the #BlackSpecFic report and honestly? Let’s talk about the business of genre. Every few years we hear that traditional publishing is an industry in danger, that people simply don’t read like they used to, and the reasons for that always include movies, video games and comic books. What gets ignored is that there is greater diversity in those genres. That you can see people who look like you on the screen and behind it. Despite the tendency to think diversity is a majority white setting with one or two POC who get to speak, the reality is that diversity looks less like tokenization and more like whole communities being represented at every level. The conversations around this topic are often riddled with tropes about Social Justice Warriors being too politically correct. Those tropes are easy to embrace for some because they don’t want to ask themselves why they find the stories that resonate in other genres so threatening in this one.
There isn’t a good reason for an all-white setting in fact or in fiction and let’s be honest, the dearth of voices of color isn’t an accident. While things have improved since the #BlackSpecFic project began, the sad fact is that a lot of the issue is the failure of editors to even solicit these stories. Whether the venue is Twitter or a convention, editors at many publications are failing to approach new writers. Or they are rejecting stories not based on quality but on familiarity. There’s a lack of cultural competence becoming more obvious in speculative fiction publishing.
When the response to this report is “Well no one can make people submit stories,” I’m going to ask, we should all be asking, what is being done to make submitting a story seem worth it? If I know that I can take the same storyline and turn it into a graphic novel and have a better chance of being published do I keep tilting at the windmill of traditional prose, or do I move along to a genre that appreciates my talent?
And I don’t ask that question solely as a writer and editor, I ask it as a fan. Far too much of what gets published in speculative fiction outlets feels like the same old things sloppily rearranged and republished. If I know as a fan that I can find characters that look like me, cultures that reflect mine, and creators that look like me in another genre, how much money do I spend on this genre? How much time and attention do I give it? The answer is as obvious as the success of Black Panther and so many other media properties that incorporate and celebrate the African diaspora.
Being inclusive, soliciting writers and editors who are from the African diaspora can only broaden the reach and the appeal of speculative fiction. Will white readers like everything that is produced? Of course not. But that’s true of all fiction, after all someone who loves space opera may absolutely loathe medieval fantasy. It’s wonderful that some magazines have maintained their commitment to being more inclusive, but a real industry change is necessary or SFF will ruin its own future.
Amongst all the very good morally and socially valuable reasons to be more inclusive, perhaps the conversation needs to shift to cover the most basic fundamental facts of business. Only appealing to a narrow audience is bad business. It’s a quality issue for the genre in so many ways, not because writers from the diaspora can’t produce good stories. Clearly they have and will continue to do so, but where will those stories and that audience go? What impact will a lack of interest from such a huge segment of the population have on the future of traditional speculative fiction publishing? Even if an outlet can’t muster the wherewithal to care about being decent, to grasp the importance of representation, surely there’s a space for simple logic to apply. And if not? What does that say about the gatekeepers and their priorities?
And yes, these are harsh words for some readers to hear. These are harsh times. We’re in that dystopian future that so many dreaded, and we have to be ready to write the next step. There’s no single hero, no plucky youngling with a destiny. There’s just this life we’re all sharing, this world that requires the best of all of us if we’re going to make it through to the next stage. Like everything else, not being inclusive is a choice, one that has long term consequences. If you can’t envision a present that’s diverse, can’t imagine a future or a past that reflects the reality of our world, then what are you imagining? What are you supporting? Can you live with the potential consequences? These aren’t questions I can answer for anyone else, these certainly aren’t questions with easy answers, but they have to be asked. We have to interrogate the impact of these choices on the industry and on our society. We have Jim Crow as an example of what not to do, now we need to pay attention to that lesson.
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